Meditation: 10 things I learned in India
"Health is wealth, peace of mind is happiness" -Swami Sivananda
Would you like to reduce the impact of stress on your mind and body? Are you interested in meditation, but not sure how to get started? I’ve been there.
After a two-year assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, I journeyed to India to restore balance to my life. I attended yoga teacher training at the Sivanada Ashram in Kerala. My friends called it my "Eat Pray Love" tour. Maybe so, I enjoyed that book by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Life in the ashram was tough in the beginning. Getting up for meditation before sunrise was a challenge. My legs were stiff from sitting on the floor. Thoughts and feelings kept coming up that I couldn’t control. I wanted to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head. Eventually, I came to appreciate the benefits of meditation. I began to cultivate an easy feeling, that I call a “peace buzz.” Here’s what I learned:
1. Just do it
People tell me they’d love to start meditating, but they don’t know how. That’s understandable. The term meditation evokes images of bearded sages pursuing enlightenment. It must require major training, right? Fortunately, you can improve mental clarity and reduce stress by sitting in silence and deep breathing for a few minutes per day. If you can be silent and breathe, you can meditate and reap significant health benefits.
2. Get up early
“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell, don’t go back to sleep,” says Rumi, the 14th century Persian poet. Hindu teachings state that the hours between 4 to 6 am are a time of purity and wisdom. You don’t have to be Persian or Hindu to appreciate the peaceful calm at dawn. It’s the ideal time to meditate. We arose to meditate before sunrise every morning in India. Not an early riser? That’s fine, but don’t let it stop you from meditating.
3. Make it regular
If you can’t get up at 4 am to meditate, I totally get it. But, make sure you schedule a regular time. Consistency is key to a successful practice. Electronics and media will kill your peace buzz before it can flourish. Try to meditate before checking your phone or turning on the news. It seems self-indulgent with work and family responsibilities on your plate. I find that a little self-care improves my focus and helps me efficiently tackle my responsibilities.
4. Create an inviting space
In India, we meditated in an open-air temple surrounded by a tropical forest, and serenaded by exotic birds. You can create an inviting space at home. Set aside a room, or in my case, a corner of the living room dedicated solely to the practice. I recommend building a small alter on a shelf dedicated to faith, family, friends, pets, nature, or whatever you cherish most in life. Get comfortable sitting on a cushion or a chair. Dim the artificial lighting, and light a candle or two. My space is so inviting that Barnie, my Beagle, often crawls into my lap while I meditate.
5. Engage the senses
You know how a certain sight, scent, or sound can transport you to another time and place? Try burning incense or heating essential oil to engage your sense of smell. I wrap myself in a beloved prayer shawl and hold prayer beads to engage the sense of touch. For sound, it helps to repeat a mantra like “om,” or a short verse from the Bible or other faith tradition. Say it out loud or silently in your head. These sensory cues will help you feel the peace buzz more quickly as you deepen your practice.
6. Start small
We sat in meditation for at least 30 minutes each morning and evening in India. For a beginner, that’s a long time. It felt like torture when I first started. So I’d spend five minutes in focused meditation and then sit quietly (wishing I had a cup of coffee!) for the rest of the session. Over time, I bumped up my minutes of focused meditation to the full 30, and lost my craving for caffeine. Five minutes per day is a great place to start.
7. Sit up straight
Have you seen the statues of lounging Buddha? You might think you can meditate lying down in bed. I’ve tried this, but ended up falling asleep again. It’s best to sit up straight on a comfortable cushion or chair. Posture is important, because you want to ensure your air passage is open to practice deep breathing.
8. Focus on breath
Deep breathing alone can reduce your heart rate and calm the nervous system. So pay attention to the breath. Breathe in deeply filling the abdomen with air until your belly sticks out. Exhale completely deflating your belly. Focus on that rhythm. If you choose to repeat a mantra, coordinate it with your inhale or exhale. Keep focusing on the breath throughout your practice.
9. Be the observer
Thought control isn’t necessary. It’s a difficult task best left to the bearded sages. When I try to stop thinking, thoughts flood my mind. You can let them flow whatever they are—remembering to feed the dog or pick up the dry cleaning, or worse, that negative self-talk we do with ourselves. Try to detach from and be the observer of those thoughts. For example, “I’m experiencing thoughts of a hungry dog.” You are the observer not the thoughts themselves.
10. Bring faith
Meditation is inherently spiritual. It’s the opportunity to connect to the inner self, the part of us that is connected to our creator. It’s good practice to combine with prayer, journaling, scripture reading, or any other ritual based on your faith or spiritual tradition. I say the Lord’s Prayer after meditation and add my own prayers of support for my country, church, family, friends, and world peace. Don't practice a faith
? That's fine. You can still benefit from the physical and mental benefits of meditation
Were these suggestions helpful? Do you have any meditation tips to share with me? Please let me know in the blog comments below!